What Does It Mean To Understand?

mid“… Instruction begins when you, the
teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his
place so that you may understand what he
understands and in the way he understands it….”
– Soren Kierkegaard, The Journals, 1854

What is Understanding?

“The performance view of understanding is consonant with
both common sense and a number of sources in
contemporary cognitive science. The performance
perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter
of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things
with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and
examples, generalizing, applying, analogizing, and
representing the topic in new ways.

From The Teaching for Understanding Guide by Tina
Blythe and Associates (Jossey-Bass, 1999)

I would like to highlight the doing part.  It isn’t just knowing.  It is also doing something with what you know.  

Teaching for Understanding is a framework , developed in a research project at Project Zero during the early nineties, links what David Perkins has called “four cornerstones of pedagogy” with four elements of planning and instruction.

 Four Central Questions About Teaching

What shall we teach?

What is worth understanding?

How shall we teach for understanding?

How can students and teacher know what students understand and how students can develop deeper understanding?

The Teaching for Understanding framework

  • Throughlines, or Overarching Understanding Goals (extend through the entire course—focus learners on BIG understandings)
  • Generative Topic (the content we focus on in our unit; what it is about the topic that motivates us to learn more)
  • Understanding Goals (extend through a unit; connect to Throughlines and stem from the Generative Topic)
  • Performances of Understanding (learners demonstrate their understanding of the topic at various points in a unit)
  • Ongoing Assessment (learners assess themselves and one another, and receive frequent formative feedback from the teacher)

Here is an example of a unit planning guide, created by staff at the Washington International School.

Here  is an organizer to use when creating a project.

For more information, including registration for the High Quality Instruction and Delivery course offered through the Harvard Graduate School of Education, go here.

We need to teach the parts.  They need to know the elements.  But more importantly, they need to put the knowledge to use in meaningful ways to truly know and understand.  

This is learning in a meaningfully engaged way.  


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